“ Botanic gardens in Kalnthout,near Antwerp, Belgium. „
Visiting Kalmthout Arboretum, my wife and I were lucky with the weather. It was freezing - still well below zero even at midday - but diamond clear, and with only a light breeze to drive the chill through the layers of clothing in which we had wrapped ourselves. At the northernmost edge of flat Flemish Belgium, the surrounding landscape might be drab indeed on a cloudy or misty day. The only mist we saw was formed by the plumes when we exhaled. To compensate us for the cold, we found the scene illuminated by wintry sunlight: gleaming white on the snowy surfaces, glowing golden or crimson where it caught the blooms of hamamelis that are the most famous feature of Kalmthout, and the main point of seeing it in the depths of winter.
* Witch hunt *
Hamamelis is better known to most of us, myself included, as witch hazel. I use the Latin version here because its cultivation at Kalmthout is a serious botanical pursuit, not just to provide winter colour for the gardens, though it does serve that purpose too, triumphantly, with a pointillistic patterning of bright spots enlivening even the shadiest corners. Their collection is the largest in Europe with, I believe, well over a hundred varieties (I have been unable to verify the exact number from the pamphlets we brought away or the website). Moreover, many of the varieties are truly distinctive, not just minor variations that need close scrutiny to identify. Here they range from spindly shrubs that barely reach thigh-high to tall multi-stemmed trees that overhang the paths and cause you to crane your neck to look at them. The palette of their petals ranges from the most pallid cream, through bright yellows and oranges to deep incarnadine reds. Some have little fragrance, others are sharply scented, though perhaps one of the drawbacks of visiting on a frosty day is that the scents tend to be muted - or maybe it's that the human sense of smell is muted by the cold.
The finer points of the many cultivars almost certainly escaped me as we followed the route around the grounds, though this is signposted to ensure one sees all the most noteworthy specimens. A real enthusiast, such as my wife, could spend a long time inspecting even the most retiring among them, but I found myself responding more to showy flamboyance, however superficial it might be. Those that stood out for me, even to the extent of remembering their names (with the help of a little prompting from my wife while going through the photographs) were: Ruby Glow, coloured accordingly; Antoine Kort, with still bigger and brighter red blooms; Aphrodite, one of the smaller varieties, but a luminous orange in shade; Pallida (unassuming but abundant lemony petals, with a delicately matching scent); and Strawberries and Cream, the flowers of which managed, remarkably, to match its name. These were not only attractive in themselves, but seemed even more so when arranged to decorate a frosty landscape.
* Apart from witch... *
The Hamamelis collection may be the main point of visiting Kalmthout, especially in winter, but it is by no means the only one. The arboretum covers 12.5ha (30 acres) and is home to no fewer than 7000 species of trees, shrubs and other plants, many of them rarities. The brochure speaks eloquently of "giant rhubarbs from Brazil, prehistoric conifers from Australia, snowdrop trees from North America, maples and cherries from Japan, rhododendrons and magnolias from China, Cape lilies from South Africa and cedars from the Atlas mountains", and I dare say I saw all those, even if few of them were in flower in early February. Nevertheless, one can imagine how their successive flowerings keep the interest alive even after the Hamamelis Festival is over. Indeed, I see from the "Jaar Programma" that I also brought away that there are also special occasions to see camellias in March, tulips in April and May, and roses in June, as well as days set aside for plant sales, children's involvement and other educational activities throughout the year. Further details are on the website.
To me, though, the main point is that Kalmthout is an enjoyable and stimulating place to wander round irrespective of the botanical interest. The terrain is flat, of course, which is a pity from a scenic viewpoint, and the one place where a "belvedere" has been formed from a mound of earth doesn't actually provide much of a panorama, even though it is topped with three-meter-tall seat that looks like a high-chair for an infant giant. There are also some stylish buildings: the original manor house, not open to visitors, a "gloriette" (summer house), a pavilion and a space with semi-circular seating arranged for open-air performances. Ponds add watery (or icy) interest to the scene, and probably add to the range of plants that can be grown, as well as attracting bird life. With many paths meandering between the colourful clumps of vegetation, this is a place where anyone, not just a plant enthusiast, could while away a pleasant hour or two. Its main short-coming is that it offers few seats or benches for visitors to sit, rest and reflect as they go round; I'm surprised that the management, who seem fairly customer-focussed in other ways, haven't thought of this.
* Witch-finder general *
The arboretum at Kalmthout dates back to 1856, and a few of the original trees survive, though the site has undergone a sequence of changes of ownership and usage since then, particularly during the two world wars, in the second of which it was cleared for growing vegetables. In 1952, by which time they were derelict and overgrown, the grounds were acquired by the de Belder brothers with a view to restoring the old nursery. One of them, Robert by name, had the foresight to marry Jelena Kovacic, a Slovenian horticulturist, who became the driving force behind the restoration of Kalmthout and its expansion to become the showcase it is today, including developing the Hamamelis collection. With Robert, she also founded another arboretum nearby at Hemelrijk, which unfortunately we did not have time to see. Jelena died in 2003, but is commemorated in Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena', a copper-coloured variety with an orangey scent.
* Witching hour *
Kalmthout Arboretum is open daily for the Hamamelis Festival from mid-January to late February, and then opens again in mid-March until the end of November, in each case from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm (last entry 4.45). Adult entry costs 6Euro, with reductions to 5Euro for seniors and 4Euro for students, whilst children under 12 are admitted free. So are members of the Royal Horticultural Society.
There is an adequate but unexceptional gift shop, with an array of horticulturally-themed souvenirs and cards, plus some plants available for sale. The café is comfortable, warm but light and airy, and sells a limited range of snacks. We each had a bowl of home-made vegetable soup with bread, accompanied by a herbal tea for my wife and a very tasty local beer called Turf for me, at a total cost of under 20Euro, which we thought reasonable value. The loos are clean and include a disabled cubicle; indeed, given the flat terrain, the disabled should have no problem at Kalmthout generally. There is also a free car park, almost empty when we were there, but which might become crowded at a busier time. In all, the facilities for visitors are well thought-out and practical.
* Every witch way *
Finding your way to Kalmthout couldn't be easier, provided you start from Antwerp. Easiest of all is to take the train from Antwerp Central station (which is a visitor attraction in its own right, a magnificent late 19th edifice, beautifully renovated and ingeniously modernised), a local service leaving every half-hour for Essen (the Belgian town of that name, not the German city) and taking about twenty-five minutes to reach Kalmthout. The arboretum entrance is adjacent to the north-bound platform. If driving, you will need to find your way via the A12 and then the N111; the arboretum abuts the latter road, just to the left as you reach the level crossing at Kalmthout station.
The local landscape outside the arboretum I have already described as drab, and so it seemed to us, although I understand that there is a nature reserve and national (indeed, international) park in the vicinity, Kalmthoutse Heide, which straddles the Dutch border and which might well be worth seeing. The historic centres of the nearby cities - Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp itself - are all certainly well worth seeing, and should be on any traveller's "to do" list, even if only a few horticultural enthusiasts (and their devoted spouses) will contemplate taking the extra steps to Kalmthout.
Whilst I don't suppose that I shall ever qualify as a serious connoisseur - or even a truly knowledgeable amateur - of hamamelis, I don't regret finding my way to Kalmthout to spend a chilly couple of hours seeing the arboretum's collection. The place is memorably atmospheric and emanates its own curious charm, a bright stopping-place on a wintry journey.
© Also published, with photographs, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012